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State v. Sparks


April 20, 2009


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County, 04-02-0165-I.

Per curiam.


Argued March 10, 2009

Before Judges Winkelstein, Fuentes and Chambers.

A jury convicted defendant, Samuel Sparks, of first-degree conspiracy to commit murder and second-degree aggravated assault. Following the verdict, the trial court set aside defendant's conspiracy conviction. The court sentenced defendant to a twenty-year prison term, with an eighty-five percent period of parole ineligibility.

On appeal, defendant raises the following legal arguments:










Primarily because we find merit to his argument that the State's numerous gang references precluded him from receiving a fair trial, we reverse defendant's conviction.


In the early morning hours of August 4, 2003, Darby Alston was asleep in bed with his fiancée, Kinusha Davis, in his apartment at 324 Market Street in Paterson. Davis woke up to the sound of gunshots around 2:30 a.m. and saw someone standing over her with a gun. Alston had been shot. Davis described the shooter as wearing black jeans, a long black coat and black hat, with a red bandana hanging from his waist. She estimated him to be approximately five-foot-six to five-foot-seven. She was unable to identify him because his face was covered.

Gregory Myers, who lived nearby, was home during those early morning hours and saw a man wearing a hoodie walk into 324 Market Street. About ten to fifteen seconds later, Myers heard three or four gunshots and then saw the man in the hoodie leave the building. He described the man as approximately five-foot-ten to five-foot-eleven, wearing a red bandana across his face.

Richard Edmonds was on Market Street selling drugs at the time of the shooting. He saw a black man with a stocky build and wearing a black hoodie and a red bandana across his face walking toward Alston's building "like [he was] angry." About two minutes after the man entered the building, Edmonds heard a bang, followed by three successive shots. Moments later, he saw the man leave. Edmonds described the man as five-foot-ten to five-foot-eleven. He stated that the man's build, walk and dark skin tone resembled Gerald Johnson, also known as "Black." He explained that Johnson has a distinctive walk, and the man in the black hoodie had the same walk, but faster and more aggressive.

Johnson and defendant were friends. There had been more than one altercation between them and Alston in the days preceding Alston's murder.

Pamela Drakeford testified that in the summer of 2003, she accompanied defendant and his girlfriend, Jackie, to 324 Market Street to get tattoos, where an altercation broke out between defendant and Alston. Alston had told defendant that his friend Johnson was a "dead man walking," at which point defendant ran out and "[got] some of his boys," including Johnson. When they returned, Alston had a baseball bat and another man, identified as Richard Edmonds, had a handgun. A fight ensued, during which Alston swung a baseball bat at Johnson. According to a witness, Alston "knocked [defendant and Johnson] out, and it was over." Although Drakeford could not remember the date of the incident, defendant later told the police that the fight occurred on July 31, 2003.

Kinusha Davis witnessed a fight over drug territory between Alston, defendant and Johnson several days before Alston's murder. She stated that after defendant and Johnson told Alston to leave the area, Alston punched defendant.

Defendant's conviction for second-degree aggravated assault arose out of a drive-by shooting that occurred shortly after the altercation on July 31, 2003, and several days before Alston's murder. According to Richard Edmonds, about a half-hour after Alston's altercation with defendant and Johnson, he and Alston were on Market Street when a car drove by and someone in the car fired shots. No one was hit. Edmonds saw an arm extended out of the passenger window and "black guys" in the car. After the shooting, Alston said: "that mother fucker Black [Johnson] almost shot me in the face." Derrick Edmonds, Richard's brother, was present and also saw two people in the car; he identified defendant as the shooter.

Myers was about a block away when he heard gunshots. He saw a green car coming from Market Street; a man who appeared to have a gun got out of the passenger side. He identified defendant as the man with the gun. Myers saw shell casings in the middle of Market Street, and saw an unidentified man later kick them into the sewer. The police subsequently recovered three nine millimeter shell casings from the sewer drain.

Defendant's sister, Jada Rose, testified that she had loaned her green Mitsubishi Eclipse to defendant in the afternoon on July 31, 2003. Defendant returned the car at approximately 3:30 a.m. on August 1, 2003. Rose testified that during the summer of 2003, defendant was a member of the Bloods street gang.

The police believed that Alston's murder may have been connected to the July 31, 2003, drive-by shooting. On August 4, 2003, the police asked defendant for help regarding Alston's murder. The next day, defendant voluntarily went to police headquarters. Detective Donald Giaquinto interviewed defendant, who confirmed that he had an altercation with Alston on July 31, 2003, but told the police that he had no knowledge of a drive-by shooting. He told the police that he left for South Carolina soon after the altercation he and Johnson had with Alston on July 31. Witnesses confirmed that defendant was in South Carolina on the date of Alston's murder. He also told the police that Johnson might be involved in Alston's murder because they were arguing over drug territory, and he had seen Johnson with a gun.

The police arrested Johnson on August 12, 2003. According to Police Sergeant Steven Sela, that same day defendant told the police that Johnson said, "I shot Daz, and I'll take the ride. Blood forever." Defendant further told the police that, on another occasion, he overheard Johnson admit to killing Alston.


On February 25, 2004, a grand jury charged defendant with first-degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3a and N.J.S.A. 2C:2-6b(4) (count one); first-degree attempted murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3 and N.J.S.A. 2C:5-1 (count two); first-degree conspiracy to commit murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:5-2a and N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3 (count three); second-degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-4a (count four); second-degree possession of a firearm without a permit, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5b (count five); and second-degree possession of a firearm by a person not to have a weapon, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7b (count six). Counts seven through ten of the indictment charged Johnson with murder and weapons offenses. The court severed defendant's charges from Johnson's.

Defendant moved to sever counts one and three, which were related to Alston's murder, from the remaining counts against him, which were related to the drive-by shooting. The court denied the motion.

In another pretrial motion, defendant sought to preclude any reference to his being a member of a gang. The judge denied the motion, finding that the probative value of the evidence outweighed the prejudice to defendant. The judge also denied defendant's challenge to the admissibility of an audio tape of a conversation between defendant and Hector Acevedo, a witness to the July 31, 2003, altercation between defendant and Alston.

Following a trial from May 25 to June 15, 2006, the jury convicted defendant of second-degree aggravated assault on count two and conspiracy under count three, and acquitted him on counts one, four and five. The court subsequently granted defendant's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on count three, the conspiracy conviction, and for acquittal on count six, possession of a firearm by a person not to have a weapon.


We begin our discussion of the substantive issues with defendant's contention that the pretrial judge erred by denying his request to sever the counts of the indictment addressing the July 31, 2003, incident from the counts related to Alston's murder. We reject those arguments.

"Joinder is permitted when two or more offenses 'are of the same or similar character or are based on . . . 2 or more acts or transactions connected together or constituting parts of a common scheme or plan.'" State v. Morton, 155 N.J. 383, 451 (1998) (quoting R. 3:7-6), cert. denied, 532 U.S. 931, 121 S.Ct. 1380, 149 L.Ed. 2d 306 (2001). The trial court has broad discretion to order separate trials of counts if it appears that a defendant will be prejudiced by the joinder of offenses. R. 3:15-2(b). A motion for severance should be "liberally granted" if joinder would likely prejudice the defendant. Pressler, Current New Jersey Court Rules, comment 1.1 on R. 3:7-6 (2009). Absent an abuse of discretion, this court will defer to the trial court's decision on such a motion. State v. CheniquePuey, 145 N.J. 334, 341 (1996).

When considering a motion for severance, the court may consider such factors as judicial economy and efficiency, State v. Moore, 113 N.J. 239, 276 (1988), but the "critical inquiry is whether, assuming the charges were tried separately, evidence of the offenses sought to be severed would be admissible under Evidence Rule 55 [now N.J.R.E. 404(b)] in the trial of the remaining charges." State v. Pitts, 116 N.J. 580, 601-02 (1989). Other-crimes evidence is admissible "as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity or absence of mistake or accident when such matters are relevant to a material issue in dispute." N.J.R.E. 404(b). "If the evidence would be admissible at both trials, then the trial court may consolidate the charges because a defendant will not suffer any more prejudice in a joint trial than he would in separate trials." Chenique-Puey, supra, 145 N.J. at 341 (internal quotation omitted). The "plan" example set forth in N.J.R.E. 404(b), employed by the prosecution here, "refers to instances in which the other-crime evidence proves the existence of an integrated plan, of which the other crimes and the indicted offense are components." State v. Stevens, 115 N.J. 289, 305-06 (1989).

In State v. Cofield, 127 N.J. 328, 338 (1992), the Court established the following four-part test to determine when other-crime evidence is admissible:

1. The evidence of the other crime must be admissible as relevant to a material issue;

2. It must be similar in kind and reasonably close in time to the offense charged;

3. The evidence of the other crime must be clear and convincing; and

4. The probative value of the evidence must not be outweighed by its apparent prejudice.

N.J.R.E. 404(b) considerations are inapplicable, however, where the other-crime evidence may be considered part of the res gestae, or state of mind, behind the crime charged. State v. Cherry, 289 N.J. Super. 503, 522 (App. Div. 1995). "Evidence of events that take place during the same time frame as the crime charged in the indictment will not be excluded if the evidence establishes the context of the criminal event, explains the nature of, or presents the full picture of the crime to the jury." Ibid.

Applying these standards, we conclude that the pretrial judge's decision to permit joinder was not an abuse of discretion. The prosecutor presented the court with evidence that linked the July 31 and August 4 incidents, and linked defendant to both. The prosecutor represented to the court that defendant expressed surprise at missing Alston during the drive-by and swore, on his children, that he would "get" Alston.

The events of July 31, 2003, meet the test for admissibility set forth in Cofield, supra, as the altercations between defendant and Alston and the subsequent drive-by shooting at Alston, are relevant to the murder and conspiracy charges. 127 N.J. at 338. The events of July 31 are a basis for the State's assertion that defendant played a role in Alston's murder four days later. Both incidents involved shootings; they are similar in kind. Ibid. There is a close temporal connection; the murder occurred just four days after the drive-by shooting. Ibid. And, there was clear and convincing evidence that the drive-by shooting occurred. Ibid.

Moreover, there is no indication that the evidence related to Alston's murder was unduly prejudicial to defendant with regard to the attempted murder charges. See State v. Scherzer, 301 N.J. Super. 363, 469 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 151 N.J. 466 (1997) (noting that "[a]ll damaging evidence is prejudicial; it is only when the probative value is substantially outweighed by the potential prejudice that the evidence should be excluded"). The absence of undue prejudice is evidenced by the jury's verdict convicting defendant only on count two, related to the July 31 incident, and then, of the lesser-included charge of second-degree assault rather than first-degree attempted murder. The jury acquitted defendant of the murder and weapons charges.

The interests of judicial economy and efficiency also support the court's decision to permit joinder. Severance would have resulted in two trials with much of the same testimony.

Finally, there was ample evidence of animosity between defendant and Alston. Defendant and Alston had been involved in a fight just prior to the drive-by shooting, and defendant admitted that he had physical altercations with Alston. Derrick Edmonds identified defendant as the drive-by shooter, and Myers stated that he saw defendant get out of a green car coming from Market Street with a gun shortly after hearing shots fired. Moreover, the car defendant borrowed from his sister on the afternoon of July 31, 2003, met the description of the vehicle that Derrick Edmonds and Myers provided to the police. In sum, there is no indication that defendant was unduly prejudiced by joinder of the charges.


We next turn to what we consider to be defendant's dispositive argument on appeal. He asserts that the judge erred by permitting, without a limiting instruction, multiple references to defendant's involvement with the Bloods street gang. The State responds that the trial judge properly determined that the references had sufficient probative value to outweigh any prejudice to defendant, and no limiting instruction was necessary because the jurors were initially screened for potential prejudice regarding gangs.

Prior to trial, defendant sought to exclude any reference to his involvement in the Bloods street gang. The prosecutor argued that gang affiliation was relevant because statements made by both defendant and Johnson indicated that the drive-by and murder were "gang retribution." He asserted that "this case is about drugs, it's about a dispute over drug turf and it's about the fact that not only was Mr. Alston impeding on the drug turf of a Blood member but he also assaulted two Blood members and this is retaliation by Blood members that's expressed in Blood [terms]." The prosecutor argued that the gang references were "directly tied to the case itself and particularly so in a case of a conspiracy because it establishes the basis of the relationship between the two defendants."

Based on the State's proffer, the trial judge determined that references to defendant's and Johnson's gang affiliations were relevant to a jury's understanding of "their relationship and how that relationship relates to their dispute with [Alston] . . . . It certainly is probative of the . . . overall relationship between the two and the theory that the State is advancing that they were engaged in a conspiracy to . . . take [Alston's] life." The judge concluded that the probative value outweighed any prejudice to defendant.

Had the State followed through with its proffer and produced evidence to tie defendant's gang affiliation to the charges, the evidence may have been admissible. But, the State failed to produce evidence of that linkage. Consequently, the gang references prejudiced defendant with no counterbalancing relevance to the State's case.

Relevant evidence is "evidence having a tendency in reason to prove or disprove any fact of consequence to the determination of the action." N.J.R.E. 401. Here, the multiple references to defendant being a member of the Bloods street gang were neither relevant nor probative. The prosecutor failed to support his pretrial argument that defendant's gang affiliation was "directly tied to the case itself." The record contains no evidence that defendant's gang affiliation played any part in either the drive-by shooting or Alston's murder.

The State specifically argued during the pretrial motion that gang membership was pertinent to the conspiracy count. Yet, the State did not link defendant and Johnson together as Bloods or tie the alleged plan to kill Alston to their gang affiliation. Instead, the State theorized that defendant and Johnson conspired to murder Alston over drug territory. In support of that theory, the prosecutor elicited testimony regarding Johnson's drug dealing and how Alston was moving into Johnson's territory. The State did not, however, demonstrate any connection between defendant's and Johnson's affiliation with the Bloods and the drive-by shooting or murder.

Nevertheless, the record was replete with gang references without an instruction from the judge to the jury as to how that evidence could be used. In his opening statement, the prosecutor referenced Johnson's affiliation with the Bloods, stating that when defendant was asked whether anyone involved in the July 31, 2003, altercation with Alston was a Blood member, he replied, "Yes, Supreme and Black [Johnson]." Also in his opening, the prosecutor noted that defendant told the police that Johnson told him, "I shot Daz [Alston], and I'll take the ride. Blood forever." During Jada Rose's testimony, the prosecutor elicited that defendant was a member of the Bloods street gang during the summer of 2003.

Sergeant Sela read the following exchange between defendant and him into evidence: "Question: Are any of these people Blood members? Answer: Yes. Supreme and Black." Sela testified that defendant told him that Johnson had admitted to the murder, stating: "I shot Daz, and I'll take the ride. Blood forever." Also, although not a direct reference to the Bloods, Sela said that the police had reached out to defendant following Alston's murder "through . . . Detective Jose Furman, [who] was assigned to the [g]ang [u]nit of the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office." Finally, Detective Giaquinto testified that defendant also told the police that Johnson was a member of the Bloods. Although these statements show that defendant and Johnson were both members of the Bloods street gang, they do not, in any way, link defendant and Johnson together in a conspiracy to murder Alston.

The prosecutor also referenced defendant's and Johnson's alleged gang membership during summation when discussing the July 31 fight. The prosecutor said: "And that Hector, the tattoo guy, broke up this fight and that [defendant] then ran to the building . . . to get his boy, is how he put it to Lieutenant Gioquinto, to get his boy, Black, Supreme, who, like [defendant] at the time, were members of the Bloods." Near the close of his summation, the prosecutor again addressed statements that Johnson allegedly made to defendant that he shot Daz and he would "take the ride. Bloods forever." The evidence does not, however, support a reasonable inference that either shooting was gang-related.

Defendant moved for a mistrial, arguing that the references to the Bloods were unduly prejudicial to defendant in light of the evidence and arguments presented. The trial judge admitted that he "might not have let [the gang references] in" had he known that the evidence proffered at the motion hearing would not be presented at trial. However, he observed that each member of the jury had indicated that gang affiliation would not influence his or her judgment. The judge also found that the case has an "overlay of the gang issues," and that the gang affiliation is part of the State's conspiracy theory. He therefore denied the motion.

We disagree with the court's rationale. Because the prosecution's references to defendant's gang affiliation, as presented, were not linked to any element of the crimes charged, those references served no other purpose than to unfairly prejudice defendant. Evidence that defendant and Johnson were members of the Bloods was not necessary to support the conspiracy charge. The conspiracy theory rested upon a dispute over drug territory and the evidence did not tie that dispute to a conflict between gangs about that subject. Defendant did not dispute his friendship with Johnson, which was also established by other, non-gang-related evidence in the record. Moreover, as previously noted, the prosecutor made no attempt to link defendant and Johnson together as Bloods, or to show that the crimes charged were gang-related.

On the record presented to the jury, even if the evidence had some minimal relevance, which it did not, the probative value of the references to defendant's gang affiliation was substantially outweighed by the undue prejudice to defendant. See N.J.R.E. 403 (even if relevant, "evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the risk of (a) undue prejudice, confusion of issues, or misleading the jury"). The screening of the jurors for potential prejudice against gangs during voir dire cannot overcome the multiple inflammatory gang references during trial. To the contrary, the pretrial inquiry had the capacity to implant in the jurors' minds the notion that this case was gang-related, without evidence to support that belief.

Gang references are tantamount to other-crimes testimony, subject to admission only if N.J.R.E. 404(b) is satisfied. "Other crimes evidence is considered highly prejudicial." State v. Vallejo, ___ N.J. ___, ___ (2009) (slip op. at 15) (citing Stevens, supra, 115 N.J. at 309). "The risk involved with such evidence is 'that it will distract a jury from an independent consideration of the evidence that bears directly on guilt itself.'" Ibid. (quoting State v. G.S., 145 N.J. 460, 468 (1996)). "[T]he government may not convict an individual merely for belonging to an organization that advocates illegal activity." United States v. Abel, 469 U.S. 45, 48, 105 S.Ct. 465, 476, 83 L.Ed. 2d 450, 455 (1984) (internal quotation omitted).

Here, the references to defendant's gang membership were inherently prejudicial. Though N.J.R.E. 404(b) recognizes limited purposes for which that evidence may be used, none of those purposes, which could have outweighed the prejudicial impact of the evidence, were present.

Moreover, that the court admitted testimony without an instruction explaining to the jury the purpose for which the evidence was being offered weighs heavily in our determination. An immediate and specific curative instruction is necessary to "alleviate potential prejudice to a defendant from inadmissible evidence that has seeped into a trial." Vallejo, supra, ___ N.J. at ___ (slip op. at 18). In the absence of any instruction here, we conclude that the "recurring admission of evidence of other crimes and wrongdoings by defendant" - the references to his gang membership - poisoned the trial. Id. at ___ (slip op. at 2); cf. State v. Echols, ___ N.J. ___, ___ (2009) (slip op. at 19) (court's instruction that attorneys' comments were not evidence cured potential prejudice resulting from prosecutor's single statement at start of trial that defendant's gang membership could endanger the jury). Thus, given the absence of a curative instruction, "defendant was denied the fair trial to which all defendants, regardless of the strength of the case against them, are entitled." Vallejo, supra, ___ N.J. at ___ (slip op. at 18).

The State claims that the gang-related evidence was admissible pursuant to State v. Torres, 183 N.J. 554, 562-63 (2005), in which the Court permitted expert testimony explaining the role of the defendant's gang affiliation and what role it played in the crime charged. Torres is distinguishable from the present case. There, the defendant was the leader of a gang who was alleged to have ordered two gang members to murder another gang member. Id. at 559-62. The Court found that the State could offer an investigator with a history of working with gangs and organized crime as an expert witness regarding the hierarchy of street gangs. Id. at 562, 579. In Torres, the defendant's gang affiliation, and his position in the gang hierarchy, was directly related to the charges against him. Id. at 561-62. By contrast, here, no link exists between defendant's alleged gang membership and the crimes charged.

The State also relies on State v. Conway, 193 N.J. Super. 133, 169 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 97 N.J. 650 (1984), in which we found that references to the defendant's organized crime affiliation were not prejudicial error. There, however, the subject of organized crime was not raised by the State, but by the defendant. Id. at 165. And too, the court permitted the references to organized crime as relevant to motive. Id. at 165-66, 168. Here, defendant's gang membership was unrelated to the motive for the shooting.

As the Court found in Vallejo, supra, where the trial court improperly permitted references to a domestic violence restraining order against the defendant, the "trial was poisoned by the recurring admission of evidence of other crimes and wrongdoings by [the] defendant." (slip op. at 2). Here, as in Vallejo, we cannot be certain that the jury based defendant's conviction on admissible evidence, as the prejudicial evidence of defendant's alleged gang affiliation may have informed its decision. Consequently, the multiple gang references require a new trial.


We next address defendant's argument that the judge erred in denying his request for a mistrial following a prosecution witness's testimony that defendant was a police informant. Defendant further asserts that his sister's testimony that she found drugs in a jacket after he wore it; and, a police officer's testimony about Johnson's arrest record, cumulatively, denied him a fair trial. Because we have already determined that a new trial is warranted, the mistrial issue is moot. Nevertheless, we conclude that all of this testimony, when considered with the gang references, had the cumulative effect of casting sufficient doubt on the verdict to warrant a new trial.

On direct examination, Sergeant Sela stated: "I had known [defendant] prior to that several years. . . . [F]or a long time." Following defense counsel's objection, Sela clarified that he knew defendant as a "purely personal" acquaintance, and their relationship was not on a "business level." Later, Sela testified that the police asked defendant to help them "[b]ecause, at that time, we were working together. We had a relationship with . . . [defendant] as an informant." Defense counsel moved to strike Sela's response and for a mistrial.

The court acknowledged that Sela's statement linked defendant with criminal activity, but nevertheless the court denied defendant's motion for a mistrial. Instead, the court struck Sela's statement and provided a curative instruction to the jury. We agree with the trial judge that the evidence was inadmissible and unduly prejudicial. We conclude, however, that despite the curative instruction, when that testimony is taken together with the gang references, as well as with other improper testimony that required curative instructions - the testimony of defendant's sister, Jada Rose, about locating drugs in a jacket after defendant wore it; and the police officer's references to Johnson's arrest record - the cumulative effect of the testimony denied defendant a fair trial.

"Even when an individual error or series of errors does not rise to reversible error, when considered in combination, their cumulative effect can cast sufficient doubt on a verdict to require reversal." State v. Jenewicz, 193 N.J. 440, 473 (2008); see also State v. Wakefield, 190 N.J. 397, 538 (2007) ("[T]he predicate for relief for cumulative error must be that the probable effect of the cumulative error was to render the underlying trial unfair."), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 128 S.Ct. 1074, 169 L.Ed. 2d 817 (2008). Put simply, even aside from the improper gang testimony, other improper, unduly prejudicial testimony necessitated multiple curative instructions during the trial. These errors cumulatively rendered the trial unfair.


In light of our decision to reverse defendant's conviction, we decline to address the remaining evidentiary issues defendant has raised. Should they arise in a retrial, they should be addressed by the trial judge in the context of the new record.


Reversed and remanded for a new trial.


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